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The future of learning and teaching at the HSG

Prof. Dr. Jan Marco Leimeister
Professor of Business IT,
University of St.Gallen.
Foto zVg

Prof. Dr. Matthias Söllner
Assistant Professor of Business IT,
University of St.Gallen.
Foto zVg

The year was 1459. Switzerland’s first university had just been founded in Basel, and following the tradition of Oxford, Rome and Vienna, faculty members in Basel also availed themselves of an established and time-tested from of teaching: the lecture. This form of teaching dates back to the early years of universities in the Middle Ages. At that time, books were rare, which meant that teachers read from the few copies of such books as were available and discussed them. In this way, they were able to pass on the contents of the books to their students. Almost in parallel with the foundation of Switzerland’s first university, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which revolutionised the dissemination of knowledge.


Today, knowledge is freely accessible through the internet, and the contents of books at universities can be digitally retrieved everywhere at any time without any additional costs through services like SpringerLink and others. In addition, the internet provides a cornucopia of further information which can help students to find a suitable answer to almost any question. We would be forgiven for thinking that this development has deprived the lecture of its raison d’être, so that it would have to be replaced by other teaching formats. Those of you who are familiar with how a university works today will be aware of the fact that lectures are still widespread and are often the standard format for imparting knowledge, particularly when it comes to introductions to a topic. Below, we would like to discuss the reasons for this and explain how digitalisation can nonetheless help us to respond to learners’ individual requirements and help them to build up essential abilities and skills for the age of digitalisation.

«How can we configure the learning process in order to achieve the greatest possible learning successes and to guide students towards an autonomous, systematic way of working? The approach of blended learning combines the new digital forms of learning with time-tested ones, while the focus is on interaction and goal-oriented cooperation.»

Digitalisation is changing the way in which we work, live and learn. Owing to increasingly strong interlinkage and the simple access to the internet – everywhere and at any time – purely factual knowledge supposedly diminishes in value. Whereas formerly we might have had to know when, say, Switzerland’s first university was founded or how to find a book about this topic in the library, this information is now merely a mouse-click away thanks to Google or Wikipedia. Similarly, this applies to concepts, theories and methods that are often taught at universities – there is hardly one of these topics that is not covered by a Wikipedia entry, YouTube video-clips or social media posts, all of which provide at least an overview of the core elements of virtually all topics in next to no time.


Added to this, digitalisation also turns economic processes upside down and accelerates almost everything. Companies must therefore become more and more “agile” and shorten and individualise the long periods of their development processes for strategies, products and services. Also, value creation processes are becoming increasingly complex and are developing from supply chains into entire ecosystems in which companies are interlinked and create value together. Each of them must try to position itself in the ecosystem in such a way that its piece of cake is big enough to result in success. The acronym VUCA attempts to summarise present-day framework conditions. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Accordingly, companies must survive in highly volatile times – markets are changing faster than ever before. This leads to a higher degree of planning uncertainty. New technological developments such as artificial intelligence and blockchain are becoming more and more complex and make it more difficult for people to understand whether or how these technologies impact on their own business models. Correspondingly, companies are eager to attract employees who are capable of finding their bearings in these times, of launching important initiatives and leading them towards success. You can probably imagine that this is less about factual knowledge than about weighing up available pieces of information, tackling challenges both systematically and purposefully, and mastering them with tenacity – all this as fast as possible, of course, and in cooperation with various expert specialists who are able to make complex challenges controllable in the first place. This now raises the question as to how a university must structure its education in order to produce such «digital leaders».


At the University of St.Gallen, we are facing these challenges. It has always been our goal to educate our students to become executives who lead their companies towards success and are able to guide and influence the destinies of our society in a positive way. Accordingly, we have always had to deal with the developments in the world and the economy and to adapt our range of courses. The new HSG Learning Center is intended to constitute an example of such changes. Its architectural concept will support us in our efforts to be “agile” and to adjust our teaching conditions to students’ learning requirements quickly and effectively. We will also have to provide evidence of this creativity and agility in other ways. Our motto must be: away from the mere communication of knowledge towards the training of abilities and skills and the development of a level of competence that is critical to success. To this end, we would actually have to increase tutoring intensity quite significantly for we know that the training of abilities and skills requires a higher degree of interaction and feedback. However, this is where the frequently increasing student numbers are upsetting the apple cart – as they are at almost all universities. Just under 30 years ago, there were 3,900 students at the HSG; today, there are more than 8,500, and in the last five years alone, student numbers have increased by almost 1,000. The increase in faculty members is proportionally unable to keep abreast of this increase in students, which means that many courses are fully booked and that a teacher has to supervise more students at the same time rather than fewer students. And it remains to be noted that to date, it has been easier to obtain resources for buildings rather than for additional excellent research and teaching personalities. But we wouldn’t be the HSG if we didn’t confront these problems. Digitalisation can help us at least in certain ways in this respect in that we cleverly combine the new digital options with what is well-known and time-tested – i.e. blended learning. Below, we would like to explain how blended learning is already helping us to develop our teaching further. We would also like to have a look at the future, in which opportunities with regard to technology and resources will have progressed even further. We also regard it as important to note, however, that teaching at the HSG must be many-faceted. Below, we will only describe our ideas about our own way of teaching. We would like to provide stimuli but under no circumstances make dogmatic statements about the future of learning at the HSG.


We would like to start with a simple division of the learning process into three stages: preparation, presence and follow-up. Whereas in the case of the classic lecture, attendance time was customarily used for the communication of course contents, this can now be done in different ways. Thanks to learning videos in the style of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or the provision of texts, the communication of knowledge already takes place before the attendance time proper. At the same time, new technological possibilities increase students’ flexibility. They are able to flexibly schedule where and when they will deal with the subject matter that has to be prepared – today on the sofa, in the train on their way to the university or at one of the individual learning stations in the Learning Center. To secure their knowledge, students can then test themselves, for instance with the help of the new learning management system, Canvas, and check how well they have understood the contents. Learning analytics examines students’ progress and provides individual information for an improvement in their learning success. Faculty members will already have received a summary of students’ learning results prior to attendance time and are therefore able to see which contents have been understood well by the students and which contents will have to be briefly dealt with again at the start of attendance time. This feedback can also help teachers to improve and further develop their courses in order to boost the effectiveness and efficiency of the preparation stage in the future.


By outsourcing the communication of knowledge into the preparation stage, faculty members will have an opportunity to interact with students more intensively and, say, discuss current events or research results in relation to the subject matter during the time spent together on the campus. This will encourage students to apply their knowledge, reflect on current events, develop approaches to solutions and discuss them with their fellow students and teachers. This can be done with a mixture of individual and group work in order to reinforce students’ problem-solving skills, for one thing, while simultaneously training their teamwork skills. For this purpose, too, the new Learning Center of the HSG will provide a good learning environment thanks to its flexible architecture and the possibility of changing and exchanging teaching rooms. If we additionally succeed in integrating companies and their current problems into teaching, then we will be able to achieve what the HSG is well-known for: a way of teaching that is practice-oriented, is geared to the future conditions of the labour market and provides our graduates with a competitive edge.


However, the learning process should not end with this interactive attendance stage. In a follow-up, initial approaches to solutions can be developed further. For this purpose, we have implemented a function in our LOOM (Learning Objective and Outcome Manager) learning tool, for instance, with which students comment on, and further develop, each other’s work. In this way, we train our students’ ability to provide constructive feedback more or less incidentally – an ability which is increasingly gaining in significance, particularly for executives in increasingly agile working structures. Above and beyond this, smart personal assistants – think Amazon’s Alexa – may well be available as individual tutors which are able to provide a suitable answer to, or at least some information about, any questions concerning knowledge and methodology. Students will then be able to follow their individual learning progress live. Hopefully, this will also help us reduce the nasty surprises of test and seminar paper grades being lower than expected.


This is what we’re conducting research on, this is what we’re working towards, and we’re looking forward to seeing how architectural and technological progress will further change and hopefully improve learning at the HSG in the next few years.